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Hello Darkness My Old Friend - 5781

By: Rav David Milston

 

“For the Mitzvah is a lamp and Torah is light and reproofs of instruction are the way of life…” (Mishlei 6:23)

The central mitzvah of Chanukah is somewhat different from the focus of our other festivals. For example, we must live in the Sukkah for an entire week; eat matzah instead of bread and blow the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Each of these activities becomes the crux of the festival and we are totally immersed in the particular theme.

In contrast, our obligation on Chanukah begins and ends with standing outside in the dark for a few moments and leaving the candles burning for at least half an hour. The mitzvah is going on independently whilst we destroy our diet with doughnuts and latkes![1] There is of course a minhag to sit and watch the lights at least for the first half an hour, but it is not a halachik obligation.

Interestingly, Sukkot, Pesach and Purim occur in the middle of the month. We celebrate these days under a full moon. Chanukah occurs during the darkest days of the month[2] at the darkest time of the year.[3]

Chanukah is clearly a festival of light and darkness. We light outside in the dark[4] and we light at the darkest time of the year.

But what is the deeper meaning of darkness and light and what is this mitzvah teaching us?

The Ramchal explains:

“The darkness of night disturbs a person’s vision in two ways. It may either cover his eyes so he does not see what is before him at all, or it may deceive him, so that he thinks a pillar is a man, or vice versa. Similarly, in the spiritual sense, the earthiness and materialism of the world is the darkness of night to the mind’s eye, causing a person to err in two ways.

First, it does not permit him to see the stumbling blocks in the way of the world, so that fools walk securely, fall and are lost without having experienced any prior fear. Their hearts are steadfast and they fall before having any knowledge whatsoever of the existence of the stumbling block.

Yet the second error is even worse than the first, stemming from the distortion of their sight. They see evil as though it were goodness itself, and good as evil. Because of this, they strengthen themselves in clinging to their evil ways. For it is not enough that they lack the ability to see the truth, the evil staring them in the face, but they also see fit to find powerful substantiations and empirical evidence to support their evil theories and false ideas.”[5]

With this is mind, let us put Chanukah in context.

When we speak of winter, we refer to the period between Sukkot and Pesach when the weather becomes increasingly colder and wetter in the Northern Hemisphere. However, this period appears to be a spiritual winter too. Having enjoyed seven weeks of religious inspiration and elevation between Rosh Chodesh Ellul and Simchat Torah, we are now faced with a tough five-month stretch, lacking any real festivity, with only Chanukah and Purim to brighten up the darkness!

We also mentioned that this five-month period is the routine time in our lives, during which we can really achieve something formidable if we hold firm and persevere. This is the time of the year we are left ‘on our own’ to struggle with the complexities and spiritual challenges of life. We have little symbolism and activity to trigger our hidden potential into action; our success much depends on the inner strength and self-motivation we have gleaned from Tishrei.

Nevertheless, we are motivated in the knowledge that if we do succeed, the achievement will be ours and ours alone.

If this is true, then the climax of that dark period is Chanukah. Just as the external conditions threaten to curb our progress, Chanukah helps us manage the darkness, keeping us on track until we safely reach the spring.

This is surely the microcosm of the soul’s battle in this world. With darkness at its strongest, the potential to stumble is greater than at any other time in the year. Especially now, but also throughout our entire lives, the challenge is formidable. We need all our faculties to safely reach the light at the end of the tunnel.

So how can we best prepare for the ‘dark’ times in our lives?

After finishing the last hakafa and dismantling the sukkah, we must be careful not to lock the Sefer Torah away and remove our trust in Hashem. We have gone back to school, work and routine and we have a long wait until Seder Night.

As we become increasingly involved in the issues of the world, darkness sets in. At this stage we are in danger of sub-consciously realigning our priorities, placing our religious ambition on a low flame whilst becoming engrossed in our material lives and occupations. The closeness to God we felt just six weeks ago now seems like a distant or unimportant memory.

It is therefore right now, deep in our own darkness and that of the world around us, that we are instructed to light our lights. It is now we need to see the darkness for what it really is.

Some of us just need the light so we don’t stumble, so we can see where we are going. We know our destination but we need to make sure we are still on the right path. Others need the light to realign themselves and see the world as it really is. Since Simchat Torah they have been following the wrong path, replacing eternal values with finite pursuits.

Once we light up the darkness we may be shocked to discover that what we thought was a short cut to utopia is really a path to nowhere.

Chanukah comes to remind us that we have the potential to bring light to the darkest corners of this material world. As the Netivot Shalom explains,[6] even though this is the darkest time of the year, we can still bring the light that can illuminate the truth.  The light is mitzvah. The light is Torah. Clarity. Truth.

In the middle of a world of sheker – lies, we are told we can reveal the emet because it was always there and always will be. Yes, we have to make the effort to go out and get it. We have to symbolically leave the safety of our homes and our past achievements.[7] Instead, we must initiate, go outside and light the lights. We need to strive for truth, specifically at a time when we are surrounded by confusion and lack of clarity.

Chanukah inspires. It reminds us that a little light can disperse a lot of darkness. It shows us we can do it, connecting us again to the belief in ourselves and in the Almighty we worked so hard to attain through Elul and Tishrei. “Yes we can!”[8]

But surely Shabbat serves the same purpose? To an extent, yes, but there is a fundamental difference between Shabbat and Chanukah.

For one day a week, we leave the world, cease to create and realign ourselves to our eternal values in preparation for the week to come. We leave the darkness, entering a world of brightness “compared to the World to Come.” We do not enter the darkness and make it light, but rather temporarily leave it so we can summon the strength for re-entry into the darkness of the week that follows.

Chanukah is something quite different. Instead of leaving the darkness, we embrace it – “Hello darkness my old friend!” We enter the darkness and illuminate it. We prove to ourselves that however dark it is out there, however frustrating and depressing, we can still reach Pesach, if we have the faith to do so.

In today’s crazy world, it is so easy to become enslaved to the daily and depressing news of wars and woes. Chanukah tells us to stop! Stop in the middle of the darkness and remind yourself you have a neshama. Remind yourself you have a Father who is in control of this seemingly crazy world.

Remember you built a sukkah to teach you to trust your Creator. Now is the time to put that trust to the test. Remember how you danced with the Torah with such love and joy. Now, if you really love who you are and what you represent, you must keep dancing those hakafot around every ‘bima’ under all circumstances. The Torah is not locked away in the Aron while we go about our daily lives. We carry it with us as a beacon in the dark. It is our guiding light and it will show us the way.

This is the message of Chanukah.

As Jews armed with Torah and Mitzvot, we can survive anywhere and everywhere. Unlike really dark times in our history, we do not need to hide in our houses. We can go out into the world – even when the world is at its darkest – not to become lost in that darkness but rather to illuminate it, to help the world distinguish between right and wrong, illusion and truth. Because that is ultimately the role of Am Yisrael, to be an “Or LaGoyim” – a light unto the nations.

Am Yisrael is compared to the moon. Just as the moon brings light to the night, we are to stand as an example to all who see us. Each and every one of us in our own homes, communities and workplaces. And all of us together as Am Yisrael. Take the Chanukiah into the darkness; take it to work, take it to the mall. Light up the world wherever you go![9]

The world seems so dark, so uncertain, scary…

Not for the Jewish people! We have our own light – our own barometer of faith, truth and purpose. So this year, when we light our Chanukiot outside, let us be inspired to illuminate our own lives and those of others. Let us remember that we have made it through 2000 years of darkness and we have what it takes to make it through to Pesach and reach the final redemption, may it come speedily in our days!

Afterword:

The Chanukah lights gives us hope that there is a ray of light even in the thick of darkness, so it does seem apt that on erev Chanukah 5781, after ten months of a pandemic that is seemingly out of control, lockdown after lockdown with no sign of hope, we have finally received that ray of light. With vaccines now being used in a number of countries, our prayer is that we are at the beginning of the end of this challenging time, that after over 300 days of darkness and limitation we will soon be able to return to something that resembles normalcy – but even though the vaccine is a gift of science and much scientific research let us not forget that it is only אם ירצה ה' ובעזרת ה'!

We look forward to the time when we can remove our masks, take down the barriers and embrace just as we once did.

Chanuka Sameach

David Milston

 

 

[1]  See Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 671 for a description of how to light the Chanukiah.

[2] Between the 25th of Kislev and the 2nd of Tevet.

[3] Mid-December - December 21st is the 355th day of the year - 356th in leap years - in the Gregorian calendar. There are 10 days remaining until the end of the solar year. This is a frequent day for the winter solstice to occur in the northern hemisphere and summer solstice to occur in the southern hemisphere. Hence, in the Northern Hemisphere the longest night of the year is mid-December.

[4] Of course, if the wind is blowing, the rain is pouring down or your safety is threatened, you cannot light the Chanukah lights outside, but you can still place them by a window facing the street so that you’re still lighting up some element of darkness.

 

[5] Chapter 3, Mesillat Yesharim.

[6]  Netivot Shalom, Chanukah.

[7]  Maybe this also reminds us of the lessons we were supposed to internalize when we left our homes to live in the Sukkah. Thus, Chanukah can plug us back into the spiritual energies of Sukkot!

[8]  A reference to President Barak Obama’s inauguration speech, where he issued a rallying cry for a better America.

[9] Almost wherever you go in the world you will find a "Chabad House" – a house where every Jew will be warmly welcomed inspired and encouraged, by the dedicated followers of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Ladi, the famous Baal HaTania. These houses by definition light up the darkness of the exile, they remind us that we can find a temporary Jewish safe-house anywhere in the universe. It is perhaps no coincidence then that the very same Chassidic sect makes a point of erecting enormous chanukiot in the city centers of the world. Maybe there are those who are embarrassed by such "superfluous extravagances", preferring to assimilate into the general society that they live in, but to my mind the truth is quite the opposite – the Chabad Chanukiot remind every one of us wherever we may be, that we have nothing to be ashamed of, on the contrary, those who aim to bring light to this dark world are fulfilling the role that our founding father Avraham Avinu began all those years ago!

 

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